While not as popular as full-size trucks, the midsize market is still an important segment.
In the redesigned 2022 Nissan Frontier, the brand plans to be a big part of it – though it’s been a long journey to get here. It replaces a very old design; the second generation debuted for 2005, and was equipped with either an anemic four-cylinder or strong-but-thirsty V6. While waiting for this third-gen version, Nissan first put its new engine in the old truck’s body, and put it on sale in the United States for 2020. That combination was supposed to come here as well, but it never did. Instead, Nissan Canada didn’t offer the Frontier after 2019, and waited for this completely new version to arrive.
Now it’s here, and it’s worth the wait. It’s well-sized and comfortable, and should meet the needs of many buyers without the need to move up to a full-size truck.
Assessing the Competition
The Toyota Tacoma is currently the bestseller in the midsize segment. Other contenders include the Ford Ranger, Jeep Gladiator, Honda Ridgeline [Yes, really. – Ed.], Chevrolet Colorado, and its mechanical twin, the GMC Canyon. Add to that list the Hyundai Santa Cruz and upcoming Ford Maverick, both of which are smaller but still play in the same space. All have their strong points, and the Frontier faces tough competition in a segment that’s as much about lifestyle as it is work.
A New Playbook
As before, the body-on-frame Frontier comes in a cab-and-a-half with four seats and small, rear-hinged rear doors; and a larger crew cab with four full-size doors. All trims but the off-road-ready Pro-4X have beds that are six feet long, with the former featuring a five-foot box.
The previous two engine selections have been whittled down to one: a 3.8L V6 making 301 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission, and four-wheel drive is standard equipment. It’s built at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Miss., and only for the U.S. and Canada. Global markets, including Mexico, get a version called the Navara.
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Pricing starts at $41,948 before tax but including a non-negotiable freight charge of $1,950. The SV is $43,448, or $45,948 for the crew cab version The top trim is the off-road-ready Pro-4X. Exclusive to Canada, it’s available as a cab-and-a-half for $47,548, or crew for $49,448, and Nissan expects that to be the volume seller. All but three of the nine exterior colours are extra-charge.
Option packages are available for the SV trims, adding such items as trailer hitch, spray-in bedliner, full LED lighting, and side steps. I drove the Pro-4X with its optional Luxury package, which adds leather upholstery, an auto-dimming mirror, integrated garage door opener, and a premium audio system for an extra $2,000.
Midsize Mechanical Grunt
The last-gen truck’s 4.0L engine made 261 hp, making the new 3.8L’s 301 hp a considerable improvement. Fuel economy is also better, with ratings of 13.7 L/100 km in the city; 10.6 on the highway; and 12.3 in combined driving. The 4.0L got 13.9 L/100 km combined. Still, while you get more horsepower than the competition, the Frontier’s fuel figures remain worse than most.
The driving experience is much improved. Acceleration is strong and linear, whether from a stop or when passing on the highway. The nine-speed automatic can get a bit busy on hills, but it settles down nicely on flatter ground, and it’s very smooth.
The four-wheel drive system is of the dial-operated shift-on-the-fly variety, with high- and low-range gearing, but no automatic setting, and it should only be engaged on loose surfaces, as the system can bind on asphalt. The Pro-4X includes Bilstein shocks, three skid plates, an electronic locking rear differential, 17-inch rims with 265/70R17 all-terrain tires, and off-road suspension tuning. It won’t scare off the Jeep Gladiator or Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, but it got me through two rugged off-road trails without breaking a sweat. In four-wheel low and at speeds less than 10 km/h on a trail, the 360-degree camera automatically comes on, providing a low forward view so you don’t need a spotter.
The Frontier uses a new hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering gear with quicker steering ratio. The steering is well-weighted; it’s light enough to easily spin it around, but it feels satisfyingly substantial and truck-like rather than like that of an SUV. The Pro-4X can get a bit bouncy on bumpy roads, but that’s inherent to its off-road suspension and fat tires, and it smooths out when the asphalt does. Nissan has added a lot of sound-deadening materials, including acoustic laminated front-door windows, and the cabin is very quiet.
Towing capacity ranges from 2,844 kg (6,270 lb) to 2,944 kg (6,490 lb), depending on configuration, while maximum payload is 648 kg (1,430 lb). That towing limit is lower than many of its competitors, which could potentially hurt it.
Nissan’s reps believe lots of potential truck buyers want high-tech features, and by packing a lot of them into this truck, they think they’ve balanced out that lower capacity. Standard items on all trims include emergency front and rear braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, automatic high-beam headlights, and trailer sway control. There’s also available wireless charging, navigation, a subscription-based Wi-Fi, and two 120-volt power outlets, along with a sunroof, heated seats and steering wheel, and a nine-inch touchscreen.
Front passengers get plenty of room and supportive seats, although those in the rear get far less space. The rear cushions fold up to reveal a storage bin under them. The Nissan’s upright driver’s position is much better than the Tacoma’s high-floor-low-seat configuration, which feels cramped.
Toyota currently owns the midsize truck segment, with Ford’s Ranger following shortly thereafter. Nissan’s goal is to sell enough Frontiers to put it in the top three. The truck is still what it always was – a good, comfortable performer – but now with more power, better-if-not-best fuel economy, and a lot of features for the price. It’s certainly poised to give the competition a run for its money.